When I first started this blog, one of the things I wanted to do more often was quick re-caps of short fiction. One of the reasons I do these short story reviews is because this is how I learn from some of the classic short stories, and even from current short fiction featured in various online and print publications. What I reprint in these blog posts are my notes on the stories, as I read them. I re-print key passages, and summarize the rest. I may, or may not, give a critical review of the text at that point, but for me, the key passages and summary are what I look back to when I’m returning to a story to teach it, recommend it, discuss it with a peer.
I’ve decided that I need more of Dorothy Parker’s humor and bright-light detail in some of my stories, and to that end, I’m starting to work through the Complete Stories. I think I will end up blogging many of Parker’s stories in the coming months as I contemplate the HOW behind her tone and style. If you are interested in The Complete Stories of Dorothy Parker, you can find it here: Complete Stories.
The first story in the collection is “Such a Pretty Little Picture” and it is, in its own way, a good representation of what I admire about Parker. It is swift and witty and full of interesting lines. It is a quick read, with a simple story, really, but even in its simplicity, there are subtle layers of complexity. It is Mr. Wheelock’s story, mostly, and it is a very narrow tale at the heart of it. It encompasses a single few moments of “now” time, and yet there are years of backstory baggage squeezed into the narrative. The narrative distance of the story is flexible, moving in close enough to hear Mr. Wheelock’s thoughts and know his desires, but pulling back to see the Wheelock home as if in a picture, almost as bookends to begin and end the story. It is the kind of story where not a lot of words are actually printed about this family, but these characters could produce hours of discussion based on the little tidbits we learn of them.
Mr. Wheelock was clipping the hedge. He did not dislike doing it. If it had not been for the faintly sickish odor of the privet bloom, he would definitely have enjoyed it.
Summary – Part I
The Wheelock’s hedge has needed to be trimmed for a while now, but Mr. W hasn’t been home from his job in the city early enough to attend to the task. It is one of the few domestic chores he is competent to perform. He is not a handy man.
All the suburb knew about it. It was a source of all Mrs. Wheelock’s jokes.
Early in the marriage, Mr. Wheelock had played along, laughed, made the jokes better, but he has “tired of his helplessness as a topic of conversation” and he has come to resent his wife’s jokes.
He had wanted to cry, “All right, suppose I’m not any good at things like that. What of it?” He had played with the idea, had tried to imagine how his voice would sound, uttering the words. But he could think of no further argument for his case than, “What of it?”
Mrs. W sits on the porch as her husband prunes the hedges. She is securing buttons on his shirts, even though the shirts are brand new and unworn.
Mrs. Wheelock never waited for a button to come off, before sewing it on.
It is this sort of planning and pre-planning that seems so innocuous, but is driving Mr. W a little batty. Mrs. W is a no-nonsense, no fuss, all-natural sort of woman. The Wheelocks have a daughter they call Sister, because they had always planned to add a little Brother into the mix, but Mr. W’s job is just enough to get them by (with a house in the suburbs, and a maid, and other similar “costs of living” they way they are used to); they aren’t yet “able to afford a son.”
Both Mr. and Mrs. Wheelock keenly felt his guilt in keeping the bassinet empty.
(Notice the subtle, yet devastating structure of that line…it is HIS fault…they BOTH feel HIS guilt. Stunning!)
Sister is “not a pretty child” and her parents are already planning corrective surgery to address some of her cosmetic flaws. She is fragile. Pale.
[Sister was] not fragile in a picturesque way, but the kind of child that must always be undergoing treatment for its teeth and its throat and obscure things in its nose.
Mrs. W dresses Sister in “frocks” bought “a size or two too large” so she can grow into them, but she never seems to grow into them, he clothes always seem too large. She is the kind of girl one guesses will never wear clothes well, no matter the design. Sister doesn’t inspire warm father-daughter feelings in Mr. W. Generally speaking, he is disappointed in her in a sort of detached way. The girl is “sensible and well-mannered” but also “exquisitely cautious of her safety” and overly obedient.
Mrs. W is concerned about getting wood for the fireplace before the first “cold snap”, which is still weeks away at best. Mr. W is lost in thoughts of a story of a man, much like himself, who had, after twenty years of the daily grind, gone missing. The man started to get on the same train back to the suburbs that he always rode, but one day turned around and walked away, for good.
He thought long about the man’s wife, wondered what suburb he had lived in. He loved to play with the thing, to try to feel what the man felt before he took his foot off the car’s step.
Mr. W imagines himself in this man’s position, except he doesn’t care to leave his job in the city and isn’t sure who would appreciate his disappearance for what it really is.
Mrs. W interrupts his daydreams with another trivial item, this time detailing how she’d flagged a doctor down to look at Sister’s tonsils, and how even though he is the fourth doctor to recommend they NOT remove her tonsils, she’s thinking of taking the girl to a doctor in the city in the fall, just to be sure. Mr. W returns to his fantasy world, thinking through all the reasons he has to NOT leave his wife. The reasons are all very domestic and administrative in nature. There is no warm, loving reason to not leave. But, he is afraid people will assume there is another woman, if he leaves Mrs. W, and the last thing in the world he would ever want is another woman. Even though he knows he could never just leave, he likes the idea of it. He enjoys playing and re-playing the thought in his mind. How could he apply the missing man’s scenario to his own life?
Would you say the “Oh, hell” now, before you laid down the shears, or right after? How would it be to turn at the gate and say it?
Two neighbors walk by and Mrs. W tells them she’s watching her husband work to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself. Everyone laughs, including Mr. W. As the neighbors walk on, Mr. W thinks about the disappearing man some more. It took that man twenty years. Mr. Wheelock wonders that it has only taken him eight years to come to the same point, at least, mentally. At the end of the block, the neighbors turn back and look at the Wheelocks and their home, seeing this family as an outsider would see.
“Look, Fred; just turn around and look at that,” she said to her husband. She looked again, sighing luxuriously. “Such a pretty little picture!”